Browse the history of that oft-maligned medium of television and you’ll find more than a few diamonds in the dung-heap. I Love Lucy, All in the Family, Homicide, NYPD Blue, and The Twilight Zone are just a few that come to mind. You’ll find a wheelbarrow’s worth of shit, too — your Full House, your Homeboys From Outer Space to cite two examples. Then there are the shows that fall in the middle, the shows we love in spite of (or maybe because of) their awfulness, the charmingly goofy, the affably preposterous, the so-bad-they’re-good — now that’s quality cheese!
No. 2: MacGyver (1985-1992)
Oh gentle-souled adventurer, duct-tape Dionysius, inventor of the ingeniously improbable, let me sing your praises.
I know there have been many, many, many shows on television that have been superior to MacGyver. There have been shows that have worked far better as serious drama, provided us with much smarter and more insightful comedy, and been more accomplished in every artistic and technical category you could ever name. But almost none have been more likable. MacGyver is one of the dumbest, most absurd, poorly plotted, worst acted shows in the history of its medium. Yet, taken on its own terms, it’s also one of the most fun. If you can’t have a good time watching this show, it’s time to pull the stick outta your ass.
For one thing, find me a more likable hero than the man himself. MacGyver is as good-hearted, socially conscious, and charming a fellow as you’re ever likely to meet. Sure, he can be a little preachy when you get him on the subject of the environment, or firearms, or narcotics (by the way, what’s everyone’s problem with crack? is it really that bad?), but what’s having to sit through a little sanctimony from the guy every now and again when you know that any second now he’s gonna whip out that pocket knife and turn that mechanical pencil, that rusty nail, and the elastic from that guy’s underwear into a projectile capable of knocking a stolen Soviet missile out of the fucking sky?
Everybody remembers MacGyver for the inventions, and there are good reasons for that. There were a lot of them, and the more outrageously implausible they were, the better. The early episodes are so packed with improvised escapes and all kinds of homemade explosives that the writers must have burned themselves out. From the second season forward, Mac averaged one or two inventions per episode, usually saving them for the climax — like a David Banner hulk-out or KITT using his turbo-boost. A lot of those were good, like the latex glove smoke-bomb or the hot air balloon he made from a couple of parachutes and some shit he found lying around some old barracks in East Germany, but if you’re into the inventions you can’t beat that first year. That season you saw MacGyver bust out of a locked freezer with a light bulb and an ice cube, build a thermite torch from a bicycle, and make a hang-glider from the wings of a crashed satellite and a few pieces of duct tape.
Why did a satellite that had spent the last fifteen years in Earth orbit have plastic wings? That’s not the attitude you want to have.
Once they had to start rationing the inventions, the creators of the show had to come up with something else to keep people watching. So they did two things. First, they introduced more recurring characters, most notably MacGyver’s boss Pete Thornton, and his old chum Jack Dalton. Pete was supposedly the guy in charge, but it’s pretty clear most of the time who wears the pants in that relationship. More than making us laugh at what an ineffectual bitch he was, Pete proved invaluable to the show as someone to whom MacGyver could explain what the hell he was doing with that paperclip and length of shoelace without resorting to a voiceover. And let’s not forget that the bald, chubby, 50-something Pete, thanks to his skilled stunt double, was a virtually unstoppable fighting machine when the circumstances called for it. And Jack Dalton, Mac’s old college pal who dreamed of starting his own personal airline, was played by Bruce McGill, who makes everything he’s in better by his mere presence. I remember when the show was still on the air how I always looked forward to the Dalton episodes. Guaranteed good times.
The second thing the writers did to fill up time when MacGyver wasn’t inventing shit was to give the show a social conscience. It was a crude, grasping, ham-fisted social conscience that dispensed daring, hard-hitting morals like “dumping radioactive sludge in streams is bad” and “we must be ever mindful not to over-fish our precious oceans.” And let’s not forget MacGyver’s principled opposition to guns.
The series was a creation of the 80s. It was the decade of the Very Special Episode, and MacGyver contributed more than its share. There were episodes that crusaded against the evils of drugs, environmental depredations, alcoholism, and that’s not all. Who can forget the first Murdoc episode, a sobering admonition not to drive a semi with a lit stick of dynamite in your hand? Or the fearless tales revealing the dangers of voodoo? Or the many episodes that demonstrated the perils of hanging out with Teri Hatcher? I doubt there have been any two shows that between them have saved as many lives or opened as many eyes as MacGyver has all by itself.
Okay, maybe The Commish. Maybe.
As I’ve mentioned a few times in previous articles, the most fun part of MacGyver was how wide open its premise was. MacGyver wasn’t exactly a government agent, he wasn’t exactly a scientist, he wasn’t exactly an adventurer. He was all of those to a degree, and he was everything else the writers of the show needed him to be. The show was so flexible, you could’ve written an episode about just about anything. My buddy Varjak loves to cite the example of the show where MacGyver stops at a filling station to gas up his jeep, a pregnant woman runs up and says, “Help, my husband is trying to kill me,” and off they go to spend the next hour hiding from her murderous baby-daddy in an abandoned warehouse. There’s your episode. You couldn’t get that sort of variety from Newhart, by crikey.
(I’ve got nothing against Newhart. It was a fine show. I’m just saying.)
Ultimately, beyond the crazy inventions and the clumsy good intentions, the key to MacGyver is MacGyver, played by Richard Dean Anderson. Ain’t he just the sorta guy you’d love to hang out with? It’s probably short notice, but fuck it — I think I’ll invite him to an Independence Day barbecue. Not the world’s best actor, but a man who clearly knows his strengths and plays to them. Get this show on DVD or catch the next rerun. Watch how loose and unassuming he is, how he doesn’t worry about making MacGyver seem like a tough guy. I love the way he shakes his hand in pain after punching a bad guy, or how he throws up his arms and whimpers “Don’t hit!” when he thinks someone’s about to take a swing at him, or how he plays his exasperation in his scenes with Dalton or Penny Parker. He makes MacGyver such a likable guy that I’m even willing to overlook his NHL fandom, ordinarily an unforgivable character defect, even though it leads to scenes in several episodes of actual hockey play.
For an otherwise rational Star Trek fan, exasperated by all those zealous nerds so obsessed with technicalities and explaining away continuity errors, a show like MacGyver is a godsend. Just try constructing a coherent canon for this show. Christ, Mac’s had so many former loves of his life meet tragic ends that he’d have to be in his late 50s as the first season starts just to fit them all in. Not to mention the number of best friends the guy has, nearly all of whom he never mentions until they show up for a single episode and then disappear forever; and the fascinating phenomenon of Mac always appearing to be his current age in flashbacks, no matter how far in the past the scene supposedly occurs.
(Well, not really. But I always thought it would have been great if they’d just used Richard Dean Anderson in the flashbacks to MacGyver’s childhood. Have all his chums played by pre-adolescent actors, and MacGyver still looking like a man in his mid-30s.)
Somehow MacGyver managed to hang on for a seven-year run, plus a couple of TV movies. All seven seasons are now available on DVD, so there’s really no excuse for not getting to know this awesomely enjoyable show. If you’ve never seen MacGyver, you’re missing out. It’s ridiculous, it’s silly, it’s ludicrous — but in a good way. It’s everything you need for quality cheese.